Self-Handicapping Behavior in the Workplace

Be aware of behaviors that sabotage employee and organizational success.
by James Bryson, New Millenium Institute
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Are you self-handicapping? As you think, so you are! Are your thoughts and beliefs impacting your performance and well-being? Are these behaviors impacting your personal or professional potential? And if so, how would you know… and what could you do about it?

Self-handicapping is a common behavior that hasn’t received much attention in the professional business literature—especially about identifying its forms and overcoming it. What is self-handicapping behavior? It is a natural defense mechanism against the threat of failure, but it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when it hinders the achievement of goals. In Self-Handicapping Leadership, authors Phillip J. Decker and Jordan P. Mitchell define self-handicapping as a process whereby “people withdraw effort, create obstacles to success, or make excuses so they can maintain a public or self-image of competence.”

Broadly, self-handicapping consists of conscious or unconscious thoughts and behaviors that emerge from fear or uncertainty of failure. This mindset leads employees to set low expectations of outcomes before a task is even attempted. It also can prevent them from taking on new or challenging tasks because the outcome is “doomed” or sure to fail due to self-doubt and lack of confidence. Most employees are unaware of these self-imposed, limiting thoughts and behaviors that sabotage their own success.
 
What makes people with the right stuff self-handicap themselves? Roland Bénabou of Princeton University argues that self-handicapping in the workplace is a deliberate or instinctive strategy aimed at the preservation of one’s self esteem. Unfortunately, countless employees feel uncertain or apprehensive in their lives or jobs. To protect their self-esteem and sense of competency, they activate behaviors that sabotage their own potential—reducing employee effort, productivity and motivation. Consequently, many disengage and end up quitting or being terminated, which contributes to employee turnover, customer dissatisfaction and company profitability problems.

Pre-existing stumbling blocks such as low self-confidence, traumatic life events, poor academic skills, negative body image, and gender and ethnicity issues can all be triggers to self-handicap. Employees who subscribe to self-handicapping can develop thinking patterns that have negative consequences for their own performance and success.

What Does Self-Handicapping Look Like?
Self-handicapping is frequent, hidden, subtle and difficult to see. It is often denied by individuals and avoided in group discussions. But in discussions with employers, I find they have identified some common forms of self-handicapping. They include:

  • Poor attendance and tardiness;
  • Drug/alcohol abuse;
  • Lack of team building, conflict resolution or customer service skills;
  • Inability to take direction or constructive feedback;
  • Making excuses for poor attitude and work performance;
  • Fear of failure or success;
  • Discomfort with new challenges, tasks or responsibilities;
  • Numerous personal and workplace problems and stress; and
  • Disengagement, quitting or the threat of termination.

Are You Self-Handicapping?
Many employers find themselves ill-equipped to deal with these types of behaviors. If you are self-handicapping, don’t fret—you are not alone! Here are seven tips to help overcome self-handicapping behaviors that will enhance your performance:

  • Identify some of the issues and challenges you are facing.
  • Self-assess your self-handicapping behaviors and triggers.
  • Discover what is causing your self-handicapping behavior.
  • Learn to change the way you view yourself and how your thoughts, beliefs and self-talk influence your life and those around you.
  • Study techniques and strategies to help you overcome the self-handicapping mindset.
  • Seek and understand your life purpose.
  • Comprehend and use your gifts and talents to enhance your performance and reach your purpose in life.

Employees and employers alike should be aware of the dynamics of self-handicapping behaviors and develop approaches to address them. Research has found that a balanced approach between behavior and mindset has the greatest potential to remedy self-handicapping. PM

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